Whether you are a seasoned veteran trapper or a novice looking for some extra money and a chance to get outdoors after being cooped up all winter, spring beaver trapping is a great opportunity.
A few years ago my young teenage son Sterling and a couple of his buddies decided to go on a camping trip in the forest. Google Earth showed dozens of small lakes in the wooded area near our Minnesota home. Sterling picked a lake well out into the forest and off they went on a camping expedition. This is not a story about camping, of course, but about the beavers he discovered in this lake. “There were five beavers at once swimming around us!” he exclaimed. “We checked out several other small lakes and most of them had beaver houses in them.”
That was all I needed to hear. Beavers are easy to catch when ice covers these ponds, so we headed back to them with #330 bodygrip traps and a willingness to work hard. It paid off in a big way and I would like to share it with you.
Two large state forests are found in the central part of Minnesota, and there are thousands of small lakes and ponds in them. Most of these are from three to 20 acres in size and have steep banks, although some of them more resemble flowages. These are not your typical streams with a dam and a lodge behind them. The lodges are found on the banks or right along the bank anywhere there is a shoal. There are relatively few dams. You may have similar ponds near where you live.
One good aspect of these beaver lakes is the small number of people trapping a large area. This is hard work—accessing many of these ponds requires a walk of a mile or more through the hills. Walk into one of these small lakes and you are likely to have it to yourself. In fact, this past season we only saw one other beaver trapper out there.
Most of these lakes have steeply sloping banks that drop off into deep water. A beaver may exit a bank lodge in 15 feet of water. There’s no effective way to trap the lodges even if we wanted to. The key to trapping these beaver is finding their bank runs. In the winter, these beaver need places they can get out of the water to take a breath and eat what they have collected. They dig small cavities in the bank as a “rest stop.” Most of these will be within 100 yards of the lodge itself, but can often be found nearer.
To determine where these might be, I like to stand at the lodge and think about how far a beaver could swim underwater in two minutes or so. Certainly, a beaver can hold its breath longer than that but they will only do so in emergency situations. The two-minute rule is a good round distance to concentrate your efforts.
Keep in mind that a large, mature beaver has a much larger lung capacity than a small beaver so they can go a lot farther. By concentrating your efforts on the outside edge of the travel zone, you can target larger beaver and exclude some of the smaller ones. In the smaller lakes, say three acres or so, the beavers can cover the entire lake, but in the larger ones, this will help you focus on the blankets and leave the kits for seed.
Finding the bank runs
Beavers often enter and exit runs many times per night, so the ice will not be as thick over the entrance. There will also be bubbles in the ice from the air that escapes the beaver’s fur when it dives into the water. Between the bubbles and the thinner ice, the sound the area produces is different from the surrounding thick, solid ice.
My friend Rick is a master at finding these runs with an ice spud, and he taught us his technique. He walks around the lake, staying within a few feet of the bank, jabbing his spud into the ice with every step. If he hears something that sounds a little different, he gives it a couple more hard jabs and then either moves on or chops the hole and makes a set, depending on the sound of the chopping. He even had a spud made with a hollow pipe so he could better hear the distinct sound of the thinner ice associated with the runs. He advises new trappers to find a dry beaver-chewed stick about five feet long and three inches in diameter for this use. This will help you get a feel for the differences in sound. Once you get good at it, then go with the ice spud.
Some of the best runs are easy to find. The weak ice right over the run can be thin enough to allow your spud to break right through. The feeling of hitting the ice with a spud, seeing it dive all the way through, and hearing the hiss of air coming from below the ice through the hole is what every beaver trapper loves to hear. When you come across that, you know you have found a good one.
Making the set
Once you have located a run, you will need to determine the best place for your trap. Chop a hole in the ice about twice the width of your #330. There will be a groove in the bottom of the lake that indicates where the beavers are entering and exiting the bank. These may be six feet long or one foot long depending on the angle of the bank. You want to set right in the middle of the groove. Steeper banks have a small margin for error, while the longer ones are more forgiving.
The best way to set these begins with taking two dry sticks and feeling the bottom. If you use green wood, there’s a risk the beaver will stop to chew on it and miss the trap. Use wood they wouldn’t ordinarily be attracted to. With one stick, feel the bottom from the side of the hole until you find where it gets deeper, this will be one side of the groove. Right on the slope, jab the stick into the bottom as far as you can. Do the same thing with the other side. Now you have the sides of the runs marked. Ideally, they will be 18 to 24 inches apart. If they are much more than that, you may have to move them close and use a couple guide sticks on the outside.
Commercial trap stabilizers work well, so don’t feel like my way is the only way—but this way does work. You will need another stick to run across between the two vertical supports to stabilize them. Then set your trap, fold the springs upward as far as they will go, and then place a stick through the holes in the springs.
Add two three-foot lengths of trapping wire by twisting it to each of the trap springs and wrap a couple turns around the stick that’s through the springs. Now lower the trap into the groove, keeping it an inch or two off the bottom. Use your wire to wrap snugly around intersections of the “H” shape you have created with the two uprights and the cross member to hold the whole works snugly together. This creates a very stable trap and produces a minimum of misfires.
This type of beaver trapping is about as close to a guarantee as you will find in trapping. If your sets are placed properly in the good runs, it’s not at all uncommon to have a beaver in 100 percent of the traps the following day. The temptation can be great to overharvest when the traps are full every day, but these ponds can take a long time to replace the beavers we take out of them. Self-restraint is important. We rarely trap one pond for more than three days and we try to set the good runs that are a distance from the lodge in order to increase the percentage of mature animals in our catch.
Learn more about how I trap beavers in the video below.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.